Legal Alerts Dec 5, 2018

Laws Regulating Campaign Contributions Must Be Narrowly Tailored to Combat Corruption

Ninth Circuit Holds That States Have an Important Interest in Preserving the Integrity of Their Political Institutions

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State limits on individual and party contributions to candidates and election-related groups do not violate the First Amendment, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals recently ruled. But an aggregate limit on contributions from non-state residents does violate the First Amendment, the court found. In response to this decision, cities should carefully review campaign contribution limits with their city attorneys to ensure that the limits meet the requirements set forth by the court.
 
In Thompson v. Hebdon, the Ninth Circuit heard an appeal from three individuals and a subdivision of the Alaska Republican Party who challenged a 2006 ballot initiative, Ballot Measure 1, which limited individual-to-candidate and individual-to-group limits to $500 per year. The initiative also capped the amount that a non-political party group may contribute to a candidate at $1,000 and restricted the amount that a candidate may receive from nonresidents to $3,000 per year.
 
The case stems from four challenges. The first two are by Alaska residents who wanted to contribute more than $500 to individual candidates running for state or municipal offices. The third by a Wisconsin resident, whose brother-in-law was an Alaska State Representative, who sent his brother-in-law’s campaign $100 — but the check was returned because the candidate had already hit the $3,000 nonresident limit. The fourth came from a subdivision of the Alaska Republican Party, District 18, which also challenged the legality of the limits because it limited how much it could contribute to a mayoral campaign.
 
In assessing the four challenges, the Ninth Circuit considered whether the state campaign contribution limits targeted an “important state interest” and, if so, whether the limits were “closely drawn” to meet that interest. This test was stated in Montana Right to Life Ass’n v. Eddleman, where the court also held that the required amount of evidence necessary to justify a legitimate state interest is low: the perceived threat must be merely more than “mere conjecture” and “not … illusory.”
 
The Ninth Circuit held that the state campaign contribution limits were narrowly tailored to prevent quid pro quo corruption and its perception, and thus did not impermissibly infringe on constitutional rights.
 
As to the $3,000 cap on how much a candidate may accept from out-of-state, the court held that it violated the First Amendment because the State failed to prove that nonresident participation in a state’s election infringed on state sovereignty. The limit, therefore, did not address an “important state interest.”
 
For more information about this decision and how it may impact your organization, please contact the authors of this Legal Alert listed at the right in the firm’s Municipal Law practice group or your BB&K attorney.
 
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Disclaimer: BB&K Legal Alerts are not intended as legal advice. Additional facts or future developments may affect subjects contained herein. Seek the advice of an attorney before acting or relying upon any information in this communiqué. 

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